‘The best design is invisible’ is the interaction design phrase of the moment. The images above are from my ever-expanding collection of quotes about how design and technology will ‘disappear’, become ‘invisible’ or how the ‘best interface is no interface’.
The Verge has recently given both Oliver Reichenstein and Golden Krishna a platform to talk about this. This has spawned manifestos, films, talks, books, #NoUI hashtags and some debates about what it might mean. I’ll call this cluster of things ‘invisible design’.
I agree with some of the reasons driving this movement; that design’s current infatuation with touchscreens is really problematic. I’ve spent the last eight years rallying against glowing rectangles, studying our obsession with screens and the ways in which this has become a cultural phenomena. In response I have been researching and inventing interfaces for taking interaction out from under the glass.
But I also take issue with much of the thinking for a few reasons that I’ll outline below.
1. Invisible design propagates the myth of immateriality
We already have plenty of thinking that celebrates the invisibility and seamlessness of technology. We are overloaded with childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms. This mythology can be harmful and is often just plain wrong. Networks go down, hard disks fail, sensors fail to sense, processors overheat and batteries die.
Computing systems are suffused through and through with the constraints of their materiality. – Jean-François Blanchette
Invisible design propogates the myth that technology will ‘disappear’ or ‘just get out of the way’ rather than addressing the qualities of interface technologies that can make them difficult or delightful.
Intentionally hiding the phenomena and materiality of interfaces, smoothing over the natural edges, seams and transitions that constitute all technical systems, entails a loss of understanding and agency for both designers and users of computing. Lack of understanding leads to uncertainty and folk-theories that hinder our ability to use technical systems, and clouds the critique of technological developments.
As systems increasingly record our personal activity and data, invisibility is exactly the wrong model.
By removing our knowledge of the glue that holds the systems that make up the infrastructure together, it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, to begin to understand how we are constructed as subjects, what types of systems are brought into place (legal, technical, social, etc.) and where the possibilities for transformation exist. – Matt Ratto (2007)
In other words, as both users and designers of interface technology, we are disenfranchised by the concepts of invisibility and disappearance.
2. Invisible design falls into the natural/intuitive trap
The movement tells us to ‘embrace natural processes’ and talks about the ‘incredibly intuitive’ Mercedes car interface. This language is a trap (we should ban the use of natural and intuitive btw) that doesn’t give us any insight into how complex products might actually become simple or familiar.
Invisible design leads us towards the horrors of Reality Clippy. Does my refrigerator light really go off? Why was my car unlocked this morning? How did my phone go silent all of a sudden? Without highly legible systems for managing and understanding all of this ‘smartness’ we are going to get very lost and highly frustrated. The tricky business of push notifications and the Facebook privacy train wreck is just the tip of the iceberg.
The example of the Nest thermostat invisibly ‘learning’ your habits to control your home temperature is a good one. But the Nest has a highly visible interface that reassures you as to its status, tells you when it is learning, and a large dial for adjusting temperature. Beautiful, legible microinteractions. A Nest without these visual and direct manipulation interfaces would be useless, uncanny and frustrating. Nest wants UI.
The discussion around invisible design often talks about using sensors and tangible interfaces instead of visual interfaces. But these systems are not inherently simpler or more familiar. They have their own material qualities with edges and ‘grain’ that need to be understood and learnt. Their literal invisibility can cause confusion, even fear, and they often increase unpredictability and failure.
In our work with interface technologies such as RFID and computer vision, we’ve discovered that it takes a lot of work to make sense of the technologies as design materials. So it’s not useful to say that UI is ‘disappearing’ into sensing, algorithms and tangible interfaces, when we don’t fully understand them as UI yet.
3. Invisible design ignores interface culture
Interfaces are the dominant cultural form of our time. So much of contemporary culture takes place through interfaces and inside UI. Interfaces are part of cultural expression and participation, skeuomorphism is evidence that interfaces are more than chrome around content, and more than tools to solve problems. To declare interfaces ‘invisible’ is to deny them a cultural form or medium. Could we say ‘the best TV is no TV’, the ‘best typography is no typography’ or ‘the best buildings are no architecture’?
We’re not interested in this idea of the invisible technology in a modernist sense. Tech won’t be visible but only if it’s embedded into the culture that it exists within. By foregrounding the culture, you background the technology. It’s the difference between grinding your way through menus on an old Nokia, trying to do something very simple, and inhabiting the bright bouncy bubbly universe of iOS. The technology is there, of course, but it’s effectively invisible as the culture is foregrounded.” – Jack Schulze (in Domus 965 / January 2013)
We should be able to simultaneously celebrate the fantastic explosion of diversity in UI, and develop healthy critique around the use of interfaces like touch screens. But by calling for UI to disappear altogether so that things can be more efficient, we remain in the same utilitarian and rational mindset that produces inert technological visions like this, rather than seeing interfaces as part of the cultural landscape.
4. Invisible design ignores design and technology history
The movement ignores at least thirty years of thinking in design and technology. A few examples:
Much of the recent invisible design discussions repeat the thinking in Jared Spool’s ‘Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen’ and Donald Norman’s ‘Invisible Computer. But a better reference point would be Don Norman’s earlier book, The design of everyday things, where he instead talks about the ‘problems caused by inadequate attention to visibility’ and supporting or managing our mental models of systems. We need a lot more thinking about our mental models of algorithms in particular.
Adam Greenfield has investigated the social and ethical issues around the development of ubiquitous computing systems, and is particularly concerned by its disappearance:
“Ubiquitous systems must contain provisions for immediate and transparent querying of their ownership, use, and capabilities. Everyware must, in other words, be self-disclosing. Whether such disclosures are made graphically, or otherwise, they ensure that you are empowered to make informed decisions as to the level of exposure you wish to entertain.” – Adam Greenfield (2006)
Some designers have talked about the actual qualities they want from ubiquitous computing interfaces, such as polite, pertinent and pretty:
“The vast quantities of information that personal informatics generate need not only to be clear and understandable to create legibility and literacy in this new world, but I’d argue in this first wave also seductive, in order to encourage play, trial and adoption” Matt Jones & Tom Coates (2008)
Matthew Chalmers has, more than anyone else, revealed the history of seamlessness. Seamlessness is ‘the deliberate “making invisible” of the variety of technical systems, artifacts, individuals and organizations that make up an information infrastructure. This work actively disguises the moments of transition and boundary crossing between these various parts in order to present a solid and seemingly coherent interface to users.’ (Ratto 2007). Although Mark Weiser is often thought of as an advocate of seamless systems, Chalmers found that:
Weiser describes seamlessness as a misleading or misguided concept. In his invited talks to UIST94 and USENIX95 he suggested that making things seamless amounts to making everything the same, reducing components, tools and systems to their ‘lowest common denominator’. He advocated seamful systems (with “beautiful seams”) as a goal. Around Xerox PARC, where many researchers worked on document tools, Weiser used an example of seamful integration of a paint tool and a text editor (Weiser, personal communication). He complained that seamless integration of such tools often meant that the user was forced to use only one of them. One tool would be chosen as primary and the others reduced and simplified to conform to it, or they would be crudely patched together with ugly seams. Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics. This would let the user brush some characters with the paint tool in some artful way, then use the text editor to ‘search and replace’ some of the brushstroked characters, and then paint over the result with colour washes. Interaction would be seamless as the features of each tool were “literally visible, effectively invisible”. Seamful integration is hard, but the quality of interaction can be improved if we let each tool ‘be itself’. – Matthew Chalmers (2003)
Matt Ratto investigates the darker side of this drive towards invisibility, revealing that seamlessness encourages:
“a particular kind of passivity and lack of engagement between people and their actions and between people and their social and material environment” and that we must “critique the clean, orderly, and homogenous future that is at the heart of these modernist visions” – Matt Ratto (2007)
And Anne Galloway suggests that it is in the seams where the design work can be done:
“Although seamlessness may remain a powerful and effective metaphor to guide particular projects, when it comes to actually getting the work done—and the challenges of having to do it with people who can be very different from each other—then I suggest it is in everyone’s best interests to recognise the importance of seams and scars in marking places where interventions can be made, or where potential can be found and acted upon.” – Anne Galloway (2007)
In interaction design we need to look at the long history of Durrell Bishop’s work, one of the strongest advocates for self-evident design, whether it is physical or virtual, through his teaching and design practice. Durrell’s ‘Platform 12’ in the RCA Design Products course attempts to see design as:
“a celebration of a model for how things work, where once again we can treat function as beauty, instead of merely treating design as form and image.”
Durrell’s work on the Marble Answering Machine (1992) is a brilliant piece of self-evident design, and remains a touchstone for all interaction design work.
Designers also need to look at the first four chapters of ‘Where the action is’ by Paul Dourish which give a coherent account of the relationships between human abilities and computer interfaces over the last 50-60 years. Dourish shows how interfaces are not becoming invisible, but how they are increasingly social and tangible.
And finally, from a design perspective, there is a long tradition of making complex products legible and understandable. Industrial designer Konstantin Grcic talks about the relationship between the technologies and the use of an object:
“A machine is beautiful when it’s legible, when its form describes how it works. It isn’t simply a matter of covering the technical components with an outer skin, but finding the correct balance between the architecture of the machine… and an expressive approach that is born out of the idea of interaction with those using the object.” – Konstantin Grcic (2007)
And perhaps more famously, Dieter Rams has always talked of honesty and understanding in his product design practice. Making a product understandable is one of his Ten Principles of “Good Design”.
This drive for understanding needs to go further than physical form (as it has done at Apple) and start to inform the design of systems and UI.
Towards legible, evident interaction
We must abandon invisibility as a goal for interfaces; it’s misleading, unhelpful and ultimately dishonest. It unleashes so much potential for unusable, harmful and frustrating interfaces, and systems that gradually erode users and designers agency. Invisibility might seem an attractive concept at first glance, but it ignores the real, thorny, difficult issues of designing and using complex interfaces and systems.
We might be better off instead taking our language from typography, and for instance talk about legibility and readability without denying that typography can call attention to itself in beautiful and spectacular ways. Our goal should be to ‘place as much control as possible in the hands of the end-user by making interfaces evident’.
Of course the interfaces we design may become normalised in use, effectively invisible over time, but that will only happen if we design them to be legible, readable, understandable and to foreground culture over technology. To build trust and confidence in an interface in the first place, enough that it can comfortably recede into the background.
A rare piece of writing from Durrell Bishop:
What if there was a generic tool to link the digital and the physical worlds? A way to touch an object, to select and see its digital augmentation? It would just send a message via your chosen device: laptop, mobile, home wifi et al. The equivalent of a digital finger. Passive objects would act as physical buttons to the digital world. All that these objects would require is that we perceive their purpose, and see how to act on them. We would need to have an accessible tool to make our selection, and carry out the link between the two worlds.
Read the whole thing: Connecting the digital world with print.
Microsoft has two new ads, anticipating their upcoming Windows Phone 7 launch. The first is an almost post-apocalyptic vision of humanity stuck with their heads in their mobile devices:
Here’s David Webster, chief strategy officer in Microsoft’s central marketing group, explaining their anti-screen strategy:
“Our sentiment was that if we could have an insight to drive the campaign that flipped the category on its head, then all the dollars that other people are spending glorifying becoming lost in your screen or melding with your phone are actually making our point for us.”
I think Microsoft & Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s advertising strategy stands out in a world full of slick floaty media. The only problem is that without any strategy towards tangible interaction, I’m not sure the ‘tiles’ interaction concept is strong enough to actually take people’s attention out of the glass.
A few links on imaging and computation:
I’ve concluded that the promise of RFID was eclipsed by another technology out there that’s poised to become more and more disruptive, not only to RFID, but to a host of technologies, and that’s the CCD.
from CCD by Joe Gregorio. Via BERG.
Cameras might allow a photographer to record a scene and then alter the lighting or shift the point of view, or even insert fictitious objects.
The camera as a device you carry has completely disappeared. Image sensors have become part of the literal fabric of everyday life.
It takes ubiquitous computing as a significant case study because the future orientation practised in ubiquitous computing research and development is emblematic of the perpetual technological forecasting in which humanity engages.
Anselm lays out the emerging issues with Augmented Reality (AR). In doing so he relates it to a whole host of known and unknown problems associated with ubiquitous computing, semantic publishing and data platforms.
Below are some clippings of bits that seem particularly insightful:
It puts own embodiment at risk. And whomsoever can mitigate that risk while providing reward will probably do well. I believe that organizations such as Apple and Google see this and are pursuing not merely real-time, or hyper-local or crowd-sourced apps but ownership of the “view”.
Everybody wants a part of the lens of reality, the zero-click base layer beneath the beneath. As Gene Becker puts it “The World is the Platform”. And an ecosystem is starting to emerge.
Suddenly game developers are arguing with GIS experts and having to unify their very different ways of describing mirror worlds.
[I]nterfaces move from being heavy and solid with big heavy buttons and knobs and rotary dials to becoming liquid and effortless like the dynamic UI of the iPhone to becoming like air itself.
By making hidden things visible, and visible things cheap, it will make other things possible that we don’t entirely realize yet.
There will be user interface interaction issues. What will be the conventions for hand-swipes, grabs, drags, pulls and other operations to manipulate objects in our field of view.
[AR] is not simply “memory” – it isn’t just a mnemonic that helps bring understanding closer to the surface of consciousness. Clearly we are surrounded by our own memories, signage, advertising, radio, friends voices and an already rich complicated teeming natural landscape loaded with signifiers and cues. But it is another bridge between personal lived experience and the experience of others. It seems to lower costs of knowing, and it seems to provide stronger subjective filters.
Augmented Reality seems to at least offer the possibility that we can punch some holes in the boxes. It seems to offer a bridge between structure and chaos rather than just structure.
I’m really not a fan of the goggle/glasses/helmet variety of AR, where the user wears something in front of their eyes that superimposes 3D objects into the physical world. In my experience this has been slow, inaccurate, cumbersome, headache inducing, the worst of VR plus a lot more problems. But AR is really interesting when it’s just a screen and a video feed, it becomes somehow magical: to see the same space represented twice: once in front of you, and once on screen with magical objects. I can imagine this working really well on mobile phones: the phone screen as magic lens to secret things.
On that afternoon we didn’t have a printer handy for making the AR marks, so we took to drafting them by hand, stencilling them off the screen with a pencil and inking them in. This hand-crafted process led to all sorts of interesting connections between the possibilities of craft and digital information.
We had lots of ideas about printing the markers on clothes, painting them on nails, glazing them into ceramics, etc. We confused ARtoolkit by drawing markers in perspective, and tried to get recursive objects by using screen based markers and video feedback.
Now as it turns out there is an entire research programme dedicated to looking at just this topic. Variable Environment is a research programme involving partners like ECAL and EPFL. The great thing is that they are blogging the entire exploratory (they call it ‘sketch’) phase and curating the results online. The work is multi-disciplinary and involves architects, visual designers, computer scientists, interaction designers, etc. Check out the simple AR ready products, sample applications and mixed reality tests with various patterns.
Underneath the desk I have stuck a grid of RFID tags, and on the top surface, the same grid of post-it notes. With the standard Nokia Service Discovery application it is possible to call people, send pre-defined SMSes or load URLs by touching the phone to each post-it on the desk. On the post-its themselves I have hand-written the function, message and the recipient. This is somewhat like a cross between a phone-book, to-do list and temporary diary, with notes, scribbles and tea stains alongside names.
Initial ideas were to spraypaint or silkscreen some of the touch icons to the desk surface, and I may well do that at some point. But for quick prototyping it made sense to use address labels or post-it notes that can be stuck, re-positioned and layered with hand-written notes.
This is an initial step in thinking about the use of RFID and mobile phones, a way of thinking through making. In many ways it is proving to be more inconvenient than the small screen (particularly with the occasionally unreliable firmware on this particular cover, I can’t speak for the production version). But it has highlighted some really interesting issues.
First of all it has brought to the forefront the importance of implicit habits. Initially, it took a real effort to think about the action of using the table as an interface: I would reach for the phone and press names to make a call, instead of placing it on the desk. But for some functions, such as sending an SMS, it has become more habitual.
SMSes have become more like ‘pings’ when very little effort is made to send them. At the same time they are more physically tangible: I rest the phone in a certain position on the desk and wait for it to complete an action. The most useful functions have been “I’m here” or “I’m leaving” messages to close friends.
I have had to consider the ‘negative space’ where the mobile must rest without any action. This space has potential be used for context information; a corner of the table could make my phone silent, another corner could change my presence online. Here it would be interesting to refer to Jan Chipchase’s ideas around centres of gravity and points of reflection, it’s these points that could be most directly mapped to behaviour. I’m thinking about other objects and spaces that might be appropriate for this, and perhaps around the idea of thoughtless acts.
If this was a space without wireless internet, I could also imagine this working very well for URLs: quick access to google searches, local services or number lookups, which is usually very tricky on a small screen. Here it would be interesting to think about how the mobile is used in non-connected places, such as the traditional Norwegian Hytte [pdf].
This process also raised a larger issue around the move towards tangible or physical information, which also implies a move towards the social. As I was making the layout of my address book and associated functions, I realised that maybe these things shouldn’t be explicit, visible, social objects. The arrangement of people within the grid makes personal sense; the placement is a personal preference and maps in certain ways to frequency and type of contact. But I wonder how it appears to other people when this pattern is exposed. Will people be offended by my layout? What if I don’t include a rarely called contact? Are there numbers I want to keep secret, hidden behind acronyms in the ‘Names’ menu?
It will be interesting to see how this plays out and changes over time, particularly in the reaction of others. I’ll post more about the use of NFC in other personal contexts in the near future.
The making of…
The desk is made from 20 mm birch ply, surfaced in Linoleum. I stuck a single RFID to the underside, in the place that felt most natural. A 10 cm grid was worked out from that point, and the RFIDs were stuck in that grid, and the same worked out on top. If I were to re-build the desk with this project in mind, the tags should probably be layered close to the surface, between the ply and Linoleum. This would make them slightly more responsive to touch by giving them a larger read/write distance.
Overall the interaction between phone and RFID tags has been good. The reader/writer is on the base of the phone, at the bottom. This seems a little awkward to use at first, but slowly becomes natural. When I have given it to others, their immediate reaction is to point the top of the phone to the tag, and nothing happens. There follows a few moments of explaining as the intricacies of RFID and looking at the phone, with it’s Nokia ‘fingerprint’ icon. As phones increasingly become replacements for ‘contactless cards’, it seems likely that this interaction will become more habitual and natural.
Once the ‘service discovery’ application is running, the read time from tags is really quick. The sharp vibrations and flashing lights add to a solid feeling of interacting with something, both in the haptic and visual senses. This should turn out to be a great platform for embodied interaction with information and function.
The ability to read and write to tags makes it potentially adaptive as a platform wider than just advertising or ticketing. As an interaction designer I feel quite enabled by this technology: the three basic functions (making phonecalls, going to URLs, or sending SMSs) are enough to start thinking about tangible interactions without having to go and program any Java midlets or server-side applications.
I’m really happy that Nokia is putting this technology into a ‘low-end’ phone rather than pushing it out in a ‘smartphone’ range. This is where there is potential for wider usage and mass-market applications, especially around gaming and content discovery.
I had some problems launching the ‘service discovery’ application. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and it’s difficult to tell why this is. It would be great to be able to place the phone on the table, knowing that it will respond to a tag, but it was just a little too unreliable to do that without checking to see that it had responded. The version I have still says it’s a prototype, so this may well be sorted out by the released version.
Overall there is a lack of integration between the service discovery application and the rest of the system: Contacts, SMS archive and service bookmarks etc. At the moment we need to enter the application to write and manage tags, or to give a ‘shortcut’ to another phone, but it seems that, as with bluetooth and IR, this should be part of the contextual menus that appear under ‘Options’ within each area of the phone. There are also some infuriating prompts that appear when interacting with URL, more details below.
This work explores the visual link between information and physical things, specifically around the emerging use of the mobile phone to interact with RFID or NFC. It was a presentation and poster at Design Engaged, Berlin on the 11th November 2005.
As mobile phones are increasingly able to read and write to RFID tags embedded in the physical world, I am wondering how we will appropriate this for personal and social uses.
I’m interested in the visual link between information and physical things. How do we represent an object that has digital function, information or history beyond it’s physical form? What are the visual clues for this interaction? We shouldn’t rely on a kind of mystery meat navigation (the scourge of the web-design world) where we have to touch everything to find out it’s meaning.
This work doesn’t attempt to be a definitive system for marking physical things, it is an exploratory process to find out how digital/physical interactions might work. It uncovers interesting directions while the technology is still largely out of the hands of everyday users.
Reference to existing work
The inspiration for this is in the marking of public space and existing iconography for interactions with objects: push buttons on pedestrian crossings, contactless cards, signage and instructional diagrams.
This draws heavily on the substantial body of images of visual marking in public space. One of the key findings of this research was that visibility and placement of stickers in public space is an essential part of their use. Current research in ubicomp and ‘locative media’ is not addressing these visibility issues.
There is also a growing collection of existing iconography in contactless payment systems, with a number of interesting graphic treatments in a technology-led, vernacular form. In Japan there are also instances of touch-based interactions being represented by characters, colours and iconography that are abstracted from the action itself.
Sketching and development revealed five initial directions: circles, wireless, card-based, mobile-based and arrows (see the poster for more details). The icons range from being generic (abstracted circles or arrows to indicate function) to specific (mobile phones or cards touching tags).
Arrows might be suitable for specific functions or actions in combinations with other illustrative material. Icons with mobile phones or cards might be helpful in situations where basic usability for a wide range of users is required. Although the ‘wireless’ icons are often found in current card readers, they do not successfully indicate the touch-based interactions inherent in the technology, and may be confused with WiFi or Bluetooth. The circular icons work at the highest level, and might be most suitable for generic labelling.
For further investigation I have selected a simple circle, surrounded by an ‘aura’ described by a dashed line. I think this successfully communicates the near field nature of the technology, while describing that the physical object contains something beyond its physical form.
In most current NFC implementations, such as the 3220 from Nokia and many iMode phones, the RFID reader is in the bottom of the phone. This means that the area of ‘activation’ is obscured in many cases by the phone and hand. The circular iconography allows for a space to be marked as ‘active’ by the size of the circle, and we might see it used to mark areas rather than points. Usability may improve when these icons are around the same size as the phone, rather than being a specific point to touch.
Work in progress
This is early days for this technology, and this is work-in-progress. There is more to be done in looking at specific applications, finding suitable uses and extending the language to cover other functions and content.
Until now I have been concerned with generic iconography for a digitally augmented object. But this should develop into a richer language, as the applications for this type of interaction become more specific, and related to the types of objects and information being used. For example it would be interesting to find a graphic treatment that could be applied to a Pokemon sticker offering power-ups as well as a bus stop offering timetable downloads.
I’m also interested in the physical placement of these icons. How large or visible should they be? Are there places that should not be ‘active’? And how will this fit with the natural, centres of gravity of the mobile phone in public and private space.
I’ll expand on these things in a few upcoming projects that explore touch-based interactions in personal spaces.
Feel free to use and modify the icons, I would be very interested to see how they can be applied and extended.
Oyster Card, Transport for London.
eNFC, Inside Contactless.
ExpressPay, American Express.
MiFare, various vendors.
Suica, JR, East Japan Railway Company.
RFID Field Force Solutions, Nokia.
NFC shell for 3220, Nokia.
ERG Transit Systems payment, Dubai.
Various generic contactless vendors.
Contactless payment symbol, Mastercard.
Open Here, Paul Mijksenaar, Piet Westendorp, Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud, Harper, 1994